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Two half sandwiches stacked on top of each other.

Finding the Best Banh Mi in Chinatown

The neighborhood is the historic epicenter of the city’s Vietnamese sandwich scene

An excellent banh mi sandwich in Chinatown.

As banh mi have become commonplace all over the city, they’ve evolved to encompass innovative fillings. Traditionally, these sandwiches are made with cold cuts, pates, and warm meats on a crusty baguette layered with pickled carrot and daikon, fresh cilantro, cucumber spears, thick mayonnaise, and the occasional jalapeno.

Despite its evolution, the heart of the banh mi scene remains in Chinatown. I decided to spend a week eating as many as I could there, sampling over a dozen in five days — including the four best banh mi in the neighborhood, pictured below.

The history

It was around 1989 that New York started getting serious about its banh mi. These hero sandwiches had earlier been found mainly in Vietnamese restaurants on Baxter Street. But suddenly we had a place specializing in them, located in the back of a jewelry store on Mott Street.

Banh Mi Saigon used a lighter, crustier baguette and it offered a half-dozen variations on the sandwich instead of the usual one or two. When it moved around the corner to Grand Street in 2010, it also became a bakery, and the list of sandwiches ballooned to 13.

Meanwhile, Vietnamese bodegas like the now-closed Sau Voi Corp. on Lafayette Street started selling the sandwich for $2.50, along with cassette tapes, cigarettes, and bras stacked in boxes. Another was Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich Deli at 369 Broome Street, near Mott Street — still open — along with other small shops devoted to banh mi all over Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens.

Versions of the sandwich using tofu and meat substitutes became common, and the sandwich was further transformed and modified in interesting ways — as a variation on the fried chicken sandwich, or turned into a burger.

A yellow awning on a corner location.
New Sau Voi on Lafayette Street was a corner bodega selling banh mi sandwiches, 2013.
Customers stand along the wall on either side of the room, waiting.
The wait for banh mi sandwiches at Banh Mi Saigon at lunchtime can run 20 minutes or more.

Finding the best banh mi

On a Monday, I started out around lunchtime at Banh Mi Co Ut. At three years old, it is the youngest of Chinatown’s dedicated banh mi parlors, really just a counter and kitchen with no seating. Run by chef Co Ut Tran, who is often seen making the sandwiches, it offers some evolved takes on the sandwich well worth trying, (She was the first I know of to use a fancy grade of Virginia smoked ham.)

A shop with a white marquee and orange neon sign with the shop name.
A woman in a white straw hat seen from the back.
A sandwich head out to show cross section.

My favorite is the special at Banh Mi Co Ut: pork belly, pate, and three kinds of ham; $9.25.

At the top of the menu, designated by a star rather than a number, is the shop’s special banh mi ($9.25) — an overstuffed affair jammed with sliced pork belly, Vietnamese ham, fried ham, and French ham, with the bottom cut surface smeared with rich and crumbly pate and mayo. This sandwich is a celebration of all things porcine, and represents a prodigious quantity of pig for the money, but the meat almost overshadows the other ingredients. Despite that, it turned out to be my favorite sandwich.

Two days later, I returned to sample the pork shoulder braised in “special fish sauce” ($7.50), which turned out to be less flavorful than it sounds; and grilled Vietnamese pork sausage in peanut sauce ($8.50). I had expected a thick sauce something like peanut butter, but instead there was an oily coating to the plump grainy sausage that tasted almost like fermented peanut liqueur. 83 Elizabeth Street, between Hester and Grand streets

The next stop was Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich Deli, owned by Sam Yip (who also makes the sandwiches), with boxes stacked helter skelter inside and a couple of tables out front. The banh mi proved damn near spectacular. No bells and whistles here, just simple sandwiches configured in the usual ways, with the house pickled veggies perhaps more assertive than usual and piled on with a generous hand.

A sign showing a hero sandwich.
A man peers from behind a wall of coffee cans.
Two half sandwiches stacked on top of each other.

Banh mi with canned sardines at Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich Deli: $10

The deli opens at 7 a.m., a couple of hours earlier than the other places, which means you can eat a banh mi for breakfast. Accordingly, I hit SVSD at around 9 a.m. on Tuesday morning. The best sandwich for this purpose is the one featuring sardines ($10), which lend a salty and briny kick, every bit as good as the BEC on a roll, and easily shareable. And there’s Vietnamese coffee, too, sweet and thick.

Thursday I returned at a more congenial hour and grabbed three more sandwiches, including the house special of grilled pork, head cheese, and steamed pork roll, which I liked every bit as much as the sardine banh mi. 369 Broome Street, near Mott Street

Demonstrating the ascendance of the banh mi as a lunch option, the historic Banh Mi Saigon fills with customers between the hours of 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m..

An extensively graffited facade.
The exterior of Banh Mi Saigon.
Two halves of a sandwich showing large quantities of ground meat.
Banh mi Saigon at Banh Mi Saigon: barbecued pork, $8.

This place is very proud of its barbecued pork, which is coarsely minced shoulder coated with a sweet red sauce. It makes a very striking sandwich, my second favorite. Years ago, this sandwich also had a slice of cha lua (steamed pork roll), but now the barbecued pork stands alone, piled into the sandwich while still warm. 198 Grand Street, near Mott

Friday I devoted to checking out the banh mi still being served at the Vietnamese old-timers in Chinatown, places like Pho Grand, Nha Trang One, and, the oldest in Chinatown at 36 years, Pasteur Grill and Noodles. The brisket banh mi there is unique in my experience — a lush thing of beauty, but I liked the grilled chicken banh mi at Nha Trang One better, with the sliced chicken charred for plenty of flavor, and thin-sliced jalapenos added without asking. 87 Baxter Street between Walker and White streets

A hanging sign with a conical straw hat.
Pasteur Grill and Noodles across from the Tombs is the oldest Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown.
A sandwich wrapped in brown paper cut in half.
Chicken at Nha Trang One: grilled chicken, $11.
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